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A World Apart: Women, Prison, and Life Behind Bars

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“Life in a women’s prison is full of surprises,” writes Cristina Rathbone in her landmark account of life at MCI-Framingham. And so it is. After two intense court battles with prison officials, Rathbone gained unprecedented access to the otherwise invisible women of the oldest running women’s prison in America. The picture that emerges is both astounding and enraging. Wome “Life in a women’s prison is full of surprises,” writes Cristina Rathbone in her landmark account of life at MCI-Framingham. And so it is. After two intense court battles with prison officials, Rathbone gained unprecedented access to the otherwise invisible women of the oldest running women’s prison in America. The picture that emerges is both astounding and enraging. Women reveal the agonies of separation from family, and the prevalence of depression, and of sexual predation, and institutional malaise behind bars. But they also share their more personal hopes and concerns. There is horror in prison for sure, but Rathbone insists there is also humor and romance and downright bloody-mindedness. Getting beyond the political to the personal, A World Apart is both a triumph of empathy and a searing indictment of a system that has overlooked the plight of women in prison for far too long. At the center of the book is Denise, a mother serving five years for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense. Denise’s son is nine and obsessed with Beanie Babies when she first arrives in prison. He is fourteen and in prison himself by the time she is finally released. As Denise struggles to reconcile life in prison with the realities of her son’s excessive freedom on the outside, we meet women like Julie, who gets through her time by distracting herself with flirtatious, often salacious relationships with male correctional officers; Louise, who keeps herself going by selling makeup and personalized food packages on the prison black market; Chris, whose mental illness leads her to kill herself in prison; and Susan, who, after thirteen years of intermittent incarceration, has come to think of MCI-Framingham as home. Fearlessly truthful and revelatory, A World Apart is a major work of investigative journalism and social justice. From the Hardcover edition.


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“Life in a women’s prison is full of surprises,” writes Cristina Rathbone in her landmark account of life at MCI-Framingham. And so it is. After two intense court battles with prison officials, Rathbone gained unprecedented access to the otherwise invisible women of the oldest running women’s prison in America. The picture that emerges is both astounding and enraging. Wome “Life in a women’s prison is full of surprises,” writes Cristina Rathbone in her landmark account of life at MCI-Framingham. And so it is. After two intense court battles with prison officials, Rathbone gained unprecedented access to the otherwise invisible women of the oldest running women’s prison in America. The picture that emerges is both astounding and enraging. Women reveal the agonies of separation from family, and the prevalence of depression, and of sexual predation, and institutional malaise behind bars. But they also share their more personal hopes and concerns. There is horror in prison for sure, but Rathbone insists there is also humor and romance and downright bloody-mindedness. Getting beyond the political to the personal, A World Apart is both a triumph of empathy and a searing indictment of a system that has overlooked the plight of women in prison for far too long. At the center of the book is Denise, a mother serving five years for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense. Denise’s son is nine and obsessed with Beanie Babies when she first arrives in prison. He is fourteen and in prison himself by the time she is finally released. As Denise struggles to reconcile life in prison with the realities of her son’s excessive freedom on the outside, we meet women like Julie, who gets through her time by distracting herself with flirtatious, often salacious relationships with male correctional officers; Louise, who keeps herself going by selling makeup and personalized food packages on the prison black market; Chris, whose mental illness leads her to kill herself in prison; and Susan, who, after thirteen years of intermittent incarceration, has come to think of MCI-Framingham as home. Fearlessly truthful and revelatory, A World Apart is a major work of investigative journalism and social justice. From the Hardcover edition.

30 review for A World Apart: Women, Prison, and Life Behind Bars

  1. 4 out of 5

    Rae

    Finding myself desperate for more when I finished the first season of Orange Is The New Black, I ordered the titular novel and this book. While Orange Is The New Black was an entertaining, informative read, it has nothing on A World Apart. Interchanging present day narrative of inmates she has interviewed and the history of prison in Massachusetts and the broader United States, Rathbone captured my fascination in the same way Krakauer did with Under the Banner of Heaven. The transition between th Finding myself desperate for more when I finished the first season of Orange Is The New Black, I ordered the titular novel and this book. While Orange Is The New Black was an entertaining, informative read, it has nothing on A World Apart. Interchanging present day narrative of inmates she has interviewed and the history of prison in Massachusetts and the broader United States, Rathbone captured my fascination in the same way Krakauer did with Under the Banner of Heaven. The transition between the current strife of female prisoners combined with the fascinating history of reform instituted primarily by women was engaging and compelling. Truly, I don't know how you can read this book and not feel moved to action. Unlike OITNB, which was entertaining and occasionally appalling, A World Apart gives concrete evidence that there needs to be change in U.S. prisons and that females in particular are vulnerable. A great read for the sociological aspect, a horrifying read when you realize some of the terrible things that are going on, and extremely interesting read for tracing the history of female imprisonment.

  2. 4 out of 5

    A B

    Here are some causes you can take up instead of the plights of women (or men) behind bars: Won't someone think of the cockroaches? Pond scum has a right to rehab and rehabilitation to become a productive member of plant society! This one's for me - I fucking hate baboons, but I care more for them than prisoners. Now I'm in a cranky mood because a simple Bing search for baboons turned up a lot of disgusting baboon butts. I picked up this book thinking it would tide me over until the new se Here are some causes you can take up instead of the plights of women (or men) behind bars: Won't someone think of the cockroaches? Pond scum has a right to rehab and rehabilitation to become a productive member of plant society! This one's for me - I fucking hate baboons, but I care more for them than prisoners. Now I'm in a cranky mood because a simple Bing search for baboons turned up a lot of disgusting baboon butts. I picked up this book thinking it would tide me over until the new seasons of "Wentworth" and "Orange is the New Black" are out. Plus, I will admit a curiosity about prisons and their inmates. So much of prison life is kept hushhush, presumably for the security of the incarcerated and DOC staff, but in all fairness I do think it's also for liability purposes (same logic as some law enforcement departments protesting body cameras). Ultimately, I was only reminded of three things: 1. Female inmates are really good at reoffending 2. Female inmates are really good at birthing fatherless children that they don't take care of (and use the classic "MUH KIDZ" defense when asking for leniency) 3. Rehabilitation and rehab only work iff (not a typo - remember middle school math?) the inmate truly desires recovery. That's why offering rehab instead of a prison sentence fails so often. Anyway, the one nice thing I can say is that the author at least admits in the book's introduction that she was never able to actually get inside the prisons she writes about. Instead, she wasted taxpayer money suing the DOC multiple times with limited success, so her book is more of a narrative of interviews with inmates. Let's see - isn't it possible that the inmates, who surely have a vested interest in making their lives suck less, aren't being entirely truthful about life in prison? What is astonishing is how blindsided the author is about the inmates she interviewed. She glosses over what got them in the slammer in the first place, laying blame on abusive men or in one case the unfortunate victim. I would imagine the inmates weren't too forthcoming about their crimes - understandable - but the author should have disclosed this. One inmate is Denise, a crack-dealing stripper with a psychotic ex-husband and a 9 year old son. Mandatory drug sentences require her to be sent away for 5 years. Here is what she says she'll miss: 1. her son 2. her friends 3. her family Good so far. 4. her cigarettes 5. her alcohol 6. her drugs OK, fuck you Denise. How about drug smuggler Charlene, in for 15 years? She got pregnant while on bail and yet considers herself of high moral character because - wait for it - "And I didn't have no kids when I committed my crime". Then she has the audacity to complain that her sentence is causing her daughter to suffer, a daughter she conceived fully knowing she'd be headed off to prison. Fuck you, Charlene. How about Tanya, who stabbed an elderly man 22 times, nearly killing the poor man? The author wants to me to be happy that Tanya is "finally getting the care she needs" after jumping out of a prison window. Society would be better off if Tanya had just jumped from a higher ledge. Fuck you, Tanya. How about Carmen? I don't think we ever really learn what she's in for, but she's such a bad mother that her 13 year old daughter has a planned pregnancy by a 20 year old. Fuck you, Carmen. Prison doesn't seem so bad, either. Perpetual fuckup/horndog Julie works at a local grocery store and enjoys having sex with customers and trolling men for money via prison pen pal schemes. Her life isn't much different in prison aside from the fact that she's locked up at night. Denise even has a serious prison boyfriend and enjoys baking apple pie and pizza with her son in family trailers. The author mixes the prisoners' stories with snippets of information about the history of women's prisons in America. In short, for many years women were incarcerated for crimes that didn't apply to men, and their conditions were horrific. At least things are more equal now, but I found it disturbing the way the author constantly tried to use the "but she's a woman!" card for female inmates - namely, the fact that 80% of female inmates are or will be mothers and that the majority are drug abusers and in destructive relationships. Perhaps her most hypocritical statement is when she decries a prison for implementing an auto repair training course. Really? She's spent the book demanding equal treatment but laughs when a valuable job skill traditionally held by men is offered? I do think the justice system needs an overhaul. I find it disturbing that murderers and sex offenders can earn time off, but drug offenders can't per mandatory sentencing laws. I also find the ways inmates circumvent the system to be morbidly fascinating. Here's my favorite: there are long waiting lists for educational and vocational training, not so much because the inmates want to improve themselves, but because they get time off. Then they deliberately fail the classes so that they can stay in them longer and thus earn more time off. Anytime bleeding hearts try to help inmates, they just abuse it. That's why they are on such lockdown. If you don't want to go to prison, they don't break the law. And don't accuse me of being unkind. I do care about the welfare of people. And once we've taken care of every homeless Vietnam veteran, located all of our MIAs, brought home all of our KIAs, and taken care of every victim of every inmate, then I can probably find time to care about the inmates themselves. P.S. If you read all the way through my review, thank you. I'd also like to disclose that a childhood playmate of mine was being raised by her grandmother because her parents were in jail for drug dealing. So yes, I do have direct experience with people affected by incarceration.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Courtney

    The number of incarcerated women in the US continues to rise, but the US only neglects and under-represents women prisoners. Though this book was written over a decade ago, it’s still relevant and I learned so much including its history of reform (I had no idea Clara Barton managed the prison) and horrific details on the American Correctional Association Conference (more evidence on how the US profits off the incarceration of millions of people while failing to provide for them basic human right The number of incarcerated women in the US continues to rise, but the US only neglects and under-represents women prisoners. Though this book was written over a decade ago, it’s still relevant and I learned so much including its history of reform (I had no idea Clara Barton managed the prison) and horrific details on the American Correctional Association Conference (more evidence on how the US profits off the incarceration of millions of people while failing to provide for them basic human rights and tools to renter society). The book is beautifully written, especially with the stories of the women in the prison. In all, it is devastating, infuriating and important.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Kasandra

    An enlightening look inside MCI-Framingham, the women's prison. Should be required reading for all criminal justice majors, and all politicians who want to cut funding for rehabilitation and educational programs in prisons (both men's and women's). Yes, you will find this depressing, but perhaps it will prompt you to take more of an interest in how prisoners are treated in your own state. Well-written and fair; the author isn't sugar-coating these women's lives or crimes, but she does illustrate An enlightening look inside MCI-Framingham, the women's prison. Should be required reading for all criminal justice majors, and all politicians who want to cut funding for rehabilitation and educational programs in prisons (both men's and women's). Yes, you will find this depressing, but perhaps it will prompt you to take more of an interest in how prisoners are treated in your own state. Well-written and fair; the author isn't sugar-coating these women's lives or crimes, but she does illustrate the unequal treatment of women in prison both in the past and up through today.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Corey

    This is a well-written book with in-depth personal looks at the lives of several women imprisoned in Massachusetts. The author weaves history of incarceration in the state (and some national information as well) through the personal accounts of women. It was also interesting to read about the author's struggles in gaining access to the prisons in order to conduct her research and how the Department of Corrections stood in her way. Overall, a very interesting and disturbing read which humanizes t This is a well-written book with in-depth personal looks at the lives of several women imprisoned in Massachusetts. The author weaves history of incarceration in the state (and some national information as well) through the personal accounts of women. It was also interesting to read about the author's struggles in gaining access to the prisons in order to conduct her research and how the Department of Corrections stood in her way. Overall, a very interesting and disturbing read which humanizes the women locked up in the US.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Jen

    I'm using this for a class and wanted something that would provide a more human look at what prison is like. This book is heartbreaking and I think, a realistic look at some of the issues that women particularly (but men as well) face when incarcerated. I'm using this for a class and wanted something that would provide a more human look at what prison is like. This book is heartbreaking and I think, a realistic look at some of the issues that women particularly (but men as well) face when incarcerated.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Taylor Hutchcraft

    Must read book for all Criminal Justice majors, gives you an insight on how women in prison is treated and how they feel while in prison!!

  8. 5 out of 5

    jakilah

    A bit too reformist for me, but a heart breaking, important, and enthralling read nonetheless. Rathbone displays an empathy too often lacking in discussions of prisons and prisoners.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Abby Suzanne

    A World Apart by Christina Rathbone was not my jam. I should know by now I am not usually a fan of nonfiction written by reporters, but for some reason, I have yet to really learn my lesson on this front. A World Apart was a book about women incarcerated in a prison for various (mostly nonviolent) crimes; the book talked about their experiences in prison as well as the ramifications of their incarceration on their kids. Unfortunately, the book read too much like fiction for me. I firmly believe A World Apart by Christina Rathbone was not my jam. I should know by now I am not usually a fan of nonfiction written by reporters, but for some reason, I have yet to really learn my lesson on this front. A World Apart was a book about women incarcerated in a prison for various (mostly nonviolent) crimes; the book talked about their experiences in prison as well as the ramifications of their incarceration on their kids. Unfortunately, the book read too much like fiction for me. I firmly believe nonfiction should be readable, but I also believe there's a line between taking too many liberties with language and experiences and capturing the women's experiences and making your writing more enjoyable. I felt like a lot of the writing in this one wasn't nonfiction; it felt like the author imposing her own interpretation or her own fictionalized recount of something, rather than allowing the women's stories to stand alone. I'm sure some people will enjoy this one, but it wasn't the book for me.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Destini

    ***3.5 Stars *** This book was incredibly eye opening for me. I mean how many people in human society think about the incarcerated ? Also- when we do think about the incarcerated, do we place them in a box? This book helped to not only give knowledge about the system within and the history of MCI-Framingham; but it also sheds light on the lives of the inmates. We never really think about the reasons why people commit crime because we focus on the crime itself. Reading about people like Denise and ***3.5 Stars *** This book was incredibly eye opening for me. I mean how many people in human society think about the incarcerated ? Also- when we do think about the incarcerated, do we place them in a box? This book helped to not only give knowledge about the system within and the history of MCI-Framingham; but it also sheds light on the lives of the inmates. We never really think about the reasons why people commit crime because we focus on the crime itself. Reading about people like Denise and Charlene specifically struck a nerve because their incarceration has a significant impact on their children. I do feel as if their could have been more details on the lives of the women in MCI-Framingham and that the book should have been formatted differently (more concise, structure of info, etc). However this is a very eye opening and important read.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Kelly

    Interesting look at life in MCI-Framingham, a women's prison in MA with a long history. The modern stories of prisoners' experiences had a distinctly Orange is the New Black feel (maybe this book was part of the research for that show?). The history of the institution and how our society has handled women in the criminal justice system was pretty interesting. Also, for what it's worth, being from MA originally, it often seems like I come from a state with (comparatively) liberal, effective policy Interesting look at life in MCI-Framingham, a women's prison in MA with a long history. The modern stories of prisoners' experiences had a distinctly Orange is the New Black feel (maybe this book was part of the research for that show?). The history of the institution and how our society has handled women in the criminal justice system was pretty interesting. Also, for what it's worth, being from MA originally, it often seems like I come from a state with (comparatively) liberal, effective policymaking. This book makes it clear that while that may be true in some areas, it is NOT the case in the prison system.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Ashly

    The characters and fine plot were engaging and made it hard to stop reading.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Harriette

    A World Apart: Women, Prison, and Life Behind Bars really explores character development in a satisfing way.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Bob

    It was not easy for Crustina Rathbone to gain access to a women's prison in Massachusetts, to conduct interviews with inmates, and somehow she did. Not surprisingly, being an inmate is a hard existence., What struck me about their stories were two things: (a) Huge concern of mothers for their children, who they are separated from, and (b) The long incarcerations imposed by mandatory sentencing. The "opportunity cost" of incarcerating someone's mother? Probably huge, especially since young children It was not easy for Crustina Rathbone to gain access to a women's prison in Massachusetts, to conduct interviews with inmates, and somehow she did. Not surprisingly, being an inmate is a hard existence., What struck me about their stories were two things: (a) Huge concern of mothers for their children, who they are separated from, and (b) The long incarcerations imposed by mandatory sentencing. The "opportunity cost" of incarcerating someone's mother? Probably huge, especially since young children, left behind, often will stay with the same family members who helped their mom become an inmate. Now, they do not have their mothers around to, hopefully, steer them toward something better. This situation is not likely to produce the best ending. Mandatory sentencing? In theory, this was supposed to curtail the drug trade. In reality, the drug trade is as significant as ever, only now society gets to pay even more of the the huge costs of keeping a large number of people behind bars. Not a very attractive option.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Margie Shelton

    The author documents her visits with female inmates at two federal prisons over a period of time. The stories are of life behind bars and the life that lead to life behind bars. The book is interesting, depressing, and, by the end, exhausting - with the "high school" carryings-on. The author fills in with some interesting history of women's prisons in the U.S. Discussions of education, skills, mandatory sentencing, and solitary confinement. The author documents her visits with female inmates at two federal prisons over a period of time. The stories are of life behind bars and the life that lead to life behind bars. The book is interesting, depressing, and, by the end, exhausting - with the "high school" carryings-on. The author fills in with some interesting history of women's prisons in the U.S. Discussions of education, skills, mandatory sentencing, and solitary confinement.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Shannon

    The story of the women in Framingham Prison was of course upsetting. It disturbed me greatly to learn so many mothers are behind bars and so many for non violent crime. I was saddened to learn that women with mental disabilities are not housed in medical facilities as one would expect, but often times locked in prison where they can cause harm to themselves and others.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Joel

    An incredibly interesting and heart wrenching look into the lives of incarcerated women. Are we treating female criminals correctly? Can we do something other than conventional incarceration for female convicts? Why do the crimes many women commit land them in prison? These are just a few of the questions this book raises and even tries to answer, or at least shed some light on.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Chelsea

    Surprisingly, I couldn't put this book down. I had picked it up to do some research for a project I'm thinking about starting and not only was it killer interesting but Rathbone's writing style is so seriously engaging that I caught myself wishing that I could write just like her. Her dedication to her work is inspiring and I'd read another of hers in a heart beat. Surprisingly, I couldn't put this book down. I had picked it up to do some research for a project I'm thinking about starting and not only was it killer interesting but Rathbone's writing style is so seriously engaging that I caught myself wishing that I could write just like her. Her dedication to her work is inspiring and I'd read another of hers in a heart beat.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Abigail

    While the author, Christina Rathbone, could not gain access to more than the visiting room of Framingham, she still managed to paint a vivid picture of the experiences of several women incarcerated there. Rathbone also seamlessly blended testimonies, history, and statistics to form a solid, well-written book regarding incarcerated women. A must read for anyone interested in the subject!

  20. 4 out of 5

    Jamie Cerretti

    I learned a lot from this book, particularly about the history of women in the criminal "justice" system. The only thing I felt was lacking was more of a racial lens/ analysis- there were only a couple of mentions about disproportionate impacts on women of color. I learned a lot from this book, particularly about the history of women in the criminal "justice" system. The only thing I felt was lacking was more of a racial lens/ analysis- there were only a couple of mentions about disproportionate impacts on women of color.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jessica

    I loved this piece of non-fiction. I had to read it for a "Women and Crime" course and it really opened my eyes to the world of women's prisons, what they go through and the outrageous policy of Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentencing. It really makes you feel for the women who give their stories. I loved this piece of non-fiction. I had to read it for a "Women and Crime" course and it really opened my eyes to the world of women's prisons, what they go through and the outrageous policy of Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentencing. It really makes you feel for the women who give their stories.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Jenni

    compassionate, informative, sometimes hard to read. certainly deeper than Orange is the New Black and offers more insight both into the prison system in the US as well as the lives of incarcerated women. reaches the heart and the mind of the reader.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Laura Isabel

    Read this as a follow-up to Orange Is the New Black. While centering on the narratives of four women in a state prison in Massachusetts, this book was more successful at addressing the broader issues of social justice, sexism, transparency and accountability, and reform. Very enlightening.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Bobbi Galvin

    After seeing people get separated from their children one two many times, there is NO WAY I could do anything that would make me go to jail or lose my kids. Hearing these stories only made me want to be a good girl. I would not do well in prison. Oh, and I would miss my kids.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Ethan

    It’s very apparent throughout this book that the author doesn’t get access to the actual prison. The story starts out strong, but relies too much on somewhat cliché characters, typical inmates.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Sara

    A look at what incarcerated women really experience, how they got there, and how they survive.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Colleen

    This was an eye-opening book about women in prison. I knew of the inequities within prisons for women, but this hit home. I learned more about the history of women's prisons. This was an eye-opening book about women in prison. I knew of the inequities within prisons for women, but this hit home. I learned more about the history of women's prisons.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Websterdavid3

    crisp and fierce... very good sense of women in Framingham state prison, as well as the history of jailing women, for poor attitudes adn sometimes worse.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Libby

    Amazing read. Launched my prison activism.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Salem

    I reviewed A World Apart here. I reviewed A World Apart here.

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